Despite wealth for toil, FIFO workers find themselves sick and tired

The changing face of shift work: fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) workers may be wealthy, but are their lifestyles unhealthy? Alex E.Proimos

Welcome to the Future of Work, a series from The Conversation that looks at the ongoing evolution of the workplace. Today, Griffith University’s Olav Muurlink looks at how the mining industry is single-handly transforming the nature of shift work in Australia.

“FIFO is the biggest con ever perpetrated by the large mining companies. After fatigue is taken into account, your usable time off is often less than 75% and sometimes as little as 50%. The large salaries are not a substitute for slowly killing yourself, your family and your marriage.”

These words come from a Perth-based train driver hooked into the express that is Australian mining. The 40-something union member is part of the revolution that has swept Australian mining. Despite a hefty paypacket, he sleeps more nights in a “donga camp” 1400 kilometres from home than he does under his own roof. Whereas 30 years ago, the typical Australian shift worker was a nurse, police officer, or other front-line emergency worker, Bureau of Statistics figures show that mining is single-handedly changing the face of the night owls. Mining is now the industry with the highest proportion of men who work shifts (52%), and while the mining industry, despite its high profile, only represents a small slice of the total workforce (2%), miners such as the train driver we quoted, have seen the eight-hour-day and home-in-time-for-tea lifestyles sacrificed to the productivity demands of resources exporters.

Take the train driver’s example. Not for him the steady night shift of the security officer, but instead, a continually rotating schedule involving morning, afternoon and day shifts, which the evidence suggests is particularly hard on the human immune system. His schedule sees him home in Perth only one week out of four, which means that his work has effectively divorced him from his home. He’s rarely there to see his children off to school. Such is the pressure to pump out coal and iron ore 24 hours a day, some companies have even sacrificed Christmas to production.

A Griffith University team, funded by the federal government’s Australian Research Council and the CFMEU Mining and Energy division, is conducting one of the largest longitudinal studies of the social, physical, and psychological impacts of shift work: the Australian Coal and Energy Survey (ACES). While the study of over 2500 miners and over 1900 of their partners is large, in fact the respondents under-represent the stress in the industry. Those who stay in mining, such as our respondents, are characterised by a resilience that the average Australian doesn’t share. Over 20% of those lured by the big money drop out within the first few months. They simply can’t handle the pace.

There are, of course, plenty who love the job, with the bigger slabs of days off that it can bring), but even the “thrivers” and “survivors” are showing the strain.

While only the first wave of ACES data is in, and thus we can’t make any definite conclusions about what causes what, it is obvious that the changes that are taking place are taking place without the ‘consent of the governed’. That is, many workers don’t feel in control of the changes, and they don’t feel safe. Over a third claim that they had no choice but to accept shift work. Close to 60% say they have no say at all over the amount of hours they work, two thirds say they have no say over the types of shift or which set of shifts they work, over 70% have no say over start and finish times—and this doesn’t include those who say they have only “some” say over these factors. Depriving workers of control over such fundamental aspects of their working life does have serious consequences.

Looking at minor illnesses such as headaches, flu and abdominal pain, those who reported having no say over their hours, for example, reported an average of 1.83 illnesses on the compound scale we used in ACES, compared to 1.59 amongst those who reported having greater say. Workers who wanted to work fewer hours reported an average of 1.85 short-term illnesses, compared to 1.61 amongst those who were content with the number of hours they were working. Amongst those who wanted to work fewer hours and claimed no say over their hours, the average number of short-term illnesses was as high as 1.98. These differences remained significant even when age was controlled for.

Minor illnesses, it is true, but such disorders act as a marker of immunosuppression, and links with more serious illnesses such as ulcers, heart disease, and even cancer, are beginning to appear in the literature. There is no doubt that the revolution in mining has brought with it great wealth - to shareholders and to ordinary Australians working in the mines alike - and that wealth is certainly a significant factor playing in the minds of those who choose to follow the centuries-old dream of seeking one’s fortunes far from the cities. However, the costs are mounting.

As a final word, a 47-year-old truck operator was asked: “Is there anything else you would like to say about work or your shift patterns?”

He said: “I don’t know whether it would have happened anyway due to age, but since being in mining … I feel I have really pushed myself and my body too far due to the shift work. I’ve never been so sick than I have over the past five years. I hardly ever went to the doctor all my life and now I live at the doctor’s. I truly feel that my environment at work and home is unhealthy and the shift work is a killer. I don’t think I will be in mining for much longer.”